Jussi Björling Society - USA



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Naxos, Jussi Björling Collection #8: “O sole mio”

by Kristian Krogholm

Naxos JB Collection 

A new great CD from Naxos in the JB Collection with careful restorations and transfers by Stefan Lindström, whose reproductions include some surface noise but consequently leave more of Jussi Björling’s voice. Seldom have the old 78s been transferred to CD with such clarity and total balance, always maintaining Jussi Björling’s voice in absolute focus. Mr. Lindström is always faithful to the actual sound of the source, never trying to create anything other than what is on the original recording, thus obtaining a more truthful result. This CD contains songs in Italian and English recorded between 1937 and 1952, the two sacred arias from Stabat Mater and the Verdi Requiem and the rest of the juvenile quartet recordings made back around 1920 (including a solo which I always thought to be by Jussi, but according to the always informative notes by Harald Henrysson, it is not).

Some of the recordings present on this disc have obtained status as classics, and are ample evidence that Jussi Björling’s voice possessed, more than perhaps any other singer past or present, the ability to produce an effortless free flow of tones—from low C to high C—without ever compromising musicality, regardless of the score’s technical difficulties.

The first five recordings would be enough to satisfy any lover of great singing. Much can be forgiven when the singer can produce such sound as this, even the somewhat strange homemade Italian like “malinsonia” (malinconia) in “ ’O sole mio” or “sòrridermi ancora” (full accent on the first syllable) in “Ideale”. But his singing of “O sole mio” brings out the true beauty of the melody while his singing of “Ideale” is beyond comparison. A beautiful legato like a river of pure silver, the voice soaring easily to a brilliant climax before the ever-so-tender concluding pianissimo. Difficult to imagine the piece sung better. Then “Mattinata” with the effortless leap up to a gorgeous high C, always keeping the musical line in focus, and two minutes of great singing which will remain unequalled. Jussi Björling sang “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra” for the first time on radio in 1948. The studio recording of the Tosti song made a year after resembles the Caruso version of 1917. Both tenor performances have the same ease and crescendo towards the climax. Perhaps Caruso’s studio version has more of that tremendous power which Jussi later created abundantly in various live performances, and which would more than equal the impact made by the Neapolitan. The 1950 Gröna Lund (Bluebell: Gröna Lund concerts vol. 2) version is ample proof of that.

You might enjoy making comparisons between Björling’s two first test recordings of “For You alone” and “Mattinata” from 1929 (Testament has the best sound) and the later recordings on this CD with the voice in its prime. In the later recordings there is of course more of everything, and that says quite a lot, knowing how wonderful he sounded at the age of 18. On this CD you can also once more appreciate how Björling could create diamonds out of virtually every simple melody— like “Jeanie with the light brown hair,” a song which used to bring down the house when he performed it in his own unique way.

The highlights of this CD are the two tenor arias from sacred works by Rossini and Verdi, both recorded on the same day in 1938. “Cujus animam” is sung with all the major Björling virtues: a perfect legato, style, beauty of tone and incredibly easy top notes up to a stunning D flat. But the true gem of the whole set is for me the “Ingemisco.” When Jussi Björling was voted the best singer of the 20th century by 28 critics in the FM Classic Magazine poll back at the turn of the century, this particular recording was mentioned to exemplify the perfection of Björling’s voice.

You might compare Björling’s recording again with that of Caruso since they are widely regarded as the two premiere tenors of all times. Caruso recorded it at the age of 41 when his voice was turning heavier and more baritonal, and the man from Naples comes up just short in this comparison. His legato is much inferior to Björling’s; his high notes less brilliant; and, in addition, he resorts to some less artistic effects in his rendition of this sacred piece, his voice almost choking with “pianto” in “et ab haedis”. Jussi Björling’s singing of “Ingemisco” is simply a lesson in how to sing! There is hardly any audible breathing, not even between a climactic high B-flat (which rings out with divine beauty after a steady ascending scale executed with the same ease of finishing off a cup of tea) and of the following pianissimo. Only his live performance in Hilversum nine months later equals this. In the Rossini aria the comparison with Caruso is also quite striking, Björling singing the high D with a perfect blend of chest and head voices, with superb ease, musicality and beauty of tone, whilst Caruso’s head note...I would not dare to call it a falsetto...but it sounds strange to me. The whole CD, although it spans a good 32 years between the earliest and the latest recording is highly satisfying.

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